Dwight hovered in front of the vending machine. Oversalted chips, over-sugared candy bars, or the caloric emptiness of gum. Why did the hospital offer such faux nutritional alternatives; wasn’t that a conflict of interest? When he was a kid, vending machines meant something exotic or exciting. The rare trips to Father’s workplace had always involved a visit to the vending machine, with its shining light and gleaming chrome coil that slowly rotated until the desired goodie dropped.
Tonight, he selected J7, and the machine blinked impatiently until he added his coins. He tore open the packet and crunched a chip, catching the eye of the woman across from him. She quickly averted her gaze to the TV news update channel, a patchwork of weather icons, pictures of auto-routes and talking heads. In a corner it showed 2:15 AM.
He pretended to watch the news channel, the better to observe the woman. She wore an open coat, as if she were just passing through. A peach-colored scarf was loosely knotted at her throat, and her hands rested on a large black handbag. He guessed she was close to him in age, but her face had a deeply careworn aspect that he was used to seeing on the mothers of his most troublesome students.
“Chip?” Dwight said, offering the open bag.
She looked at him, startled. Her mouth turned down, then she looked away.
The green doors, portal to the inner medical rooms, swung open, and the several waiting room occupants sat bolt upright. A young doctor, stethoscope flying, pony-tail bobbing, entered the waiting room. She peered at the name on her clipboard and said, “Abdelrahami?”
The woman didn’t move, but her eyes followed a bulky man who got up and went with the doctor back inside. Her face slid from eagerness to disappointment in a single breath. Dwight wondered how long she’d been waiting. She was already there when he’d arrived an hour ago.
Two hours earlier, he had been on his way home from the weekly poker game when some sixth sense had made him drive past Father’s house. At midnight the lights were still blazing and the living room drapes still open. Dwight hurriedly let himself in. He’d found Father, disoriented from a fall, and taken him straight to the E.R. at Saint Peregrine’s.
He squinted at the small windows of the green doors, wondering how Father was making out. Ten months ago, he’d waited with him in the examination room until a nurse took over. But now, the protocols were so damn strict. He carefully placed his chips beside his tote-bag on a chair and went to the Reception counter.
“Excuse me… my father, Archibald Ruch, might be a little … afraid. Is there any chance I could talk to him, just for a moment?”
The clerk, a square-jawed woman with round spectacles, gave him an exasperated, hundredth-time-today-someone’s-asked-me stare. Dwight felt his voice climbing inside his mouth before it fully emerged.
He retreated to his molded plastic chair, feeling sheepish yet vindicated. His father, once a compact man with a stonemason’s build, was now thin and stooped, but sometimes an incoherent rage seized him. If the old man tore the place apart—how he sometimes handled anxiety these days—well, Dwight would say he had tried to warn them.
The woman caught his eye, then went back to watching TV. She seemed faintly amused.
Dwight noisily crunched the chips, watching the green doors like a dog outside a butcher shop. So, I made an arse of myself, he thought, what do I care? A guy can’t help but make an arse of himself now and again. Best to do it for love, of course. But filial duty was a damn good reason, too. As a child, Dwight had feared his father, who brandished the belt; as a youth, he’d defied him, sometimes with his fists; and as a young man, he had hated his calcified politics. By now, though, in deep middle age, he’d learned of the old man’s war years, and gave him grudging respect. Would his feelings mellow to filial love by the time Archibald was on his deathbed?
Dwight shook himself guiltily and realized he’d been staring at the woman’s hands on her purse. They were big-knuckled hands, sort of like Father’s. He wondered if the woman was there in the waiting room from love or duty. The lines on her face made him guess: son. But that could just be my teacher-side talking. Could be spouse. Parent. He sighed. Best not to get too nosy. His mother used to say he was an “over-curious” child.
Dwight slid a folded page from his pocket, the list of numbers to call. At the top was Nancy’s. He knew his sister had a godawful early shift; he hated to disturb her unless he had real news to give her. Father, back in E.R., being checked over: that was not “news” unless they found something. In a book about caring for the elderly, Dwight had read that, when things started going downhill at a great age, they rapidly snowballed. Dwight assumed Nancy would be rising at 5 AM, so he decided to call her then.
Everyone else on the list was voice-mail: the school secretary, the vice-principal, and the new science teacher who’d agreed to go for a veggie-burger together… damn, he should remember her name. She was someone comfortable to talk to. The other teachers were too full of ready-baked advice. They didn’t want to hear him weighing the options for his aging father; they just wanted to say: find a long-term care facility. Or, hire a private nurse. Or, take a leave of absence. Priscilla, that was her name. He texted her to postpone their lunch.
Dwight finished his chips and wiped his mouth with a tissue. A proud, long-time mustache wearer, he felt a special onus not to leave crumbs in the shrubbery, so to speak. As he put away the tissue he felt the woman’s eyes upon him. The crumbs were gone, but the sour-cream-and-onion breath was another matter. Unless he bought gum from the machine. Dwight strolled over to the vending machine again. Six kinds of gum to choose from.
Triggered by a janitor’s broom, the automatic doors to the outside whooshed open. A far-off siren wailed, a puff of cold air swept by, and the glass doors closed. Minutes later, they whooshed open again. Then there was no wail, just a slamming of van doors. Paramedics wheeled in a gurney. The waiting room occupants watched the tumult: voices calling, badges flapping, gurney struts clattering. Two poles stuck up from the gurney, one with a bag of clear fluid, the other, red. From the blanketed form, only one arm stuck out, naked and vulnerable. Dwight shivered. The responders and gurney disappeared through the green doors.
“Poor chap,” he said, shaking his head as he returned with his gum to his chair.
“They ought to ban those things,” the woman said. Dwight was struck by the melodious resonance of her voice, like a well-tuned violin.
“Didn’t you see?” she said. “On the end of the stretcher? Motorcycle helmet.” She practically spat the word motorcycle. “Sparkly gold thing.” She touched the edge of a folded tissue to the bottom of her eye.
Dwight adjusted his glasses. Damn, he had missed the biggest clue of all. “Yeah, I never understood the attraction.” It was a lie, because once he had been young and feeling his oats, and had argued long and loud with Father about a Honda 550 cc he planned to buy with his first paycheck.
“These young folk,” she said vehemently. “Think they know better.” She stopped abruptly.
Dwight nodded. Spoken like a frustrated mother. He was ready to listen; he wanted to listen but she clammed up. At last he ventured: “Been waiting long?”
“Oh yeah. Just sticking around till I get some news.” She touched the edge of the tissue to her eye again. “They sure keep a body waiting, don’t they?” Camaraderie warmed her face.
Dwight felt a desire to see that look linger on the woman’s haggard yet strangely attractive face. But what to say? The usual questions seemed nosy or banal. His mind ran through a gamut of mildly entertaining stories he could share, some observations about life as a high-school teacher. Coaching a basketball team with players all taller than he was? Refereeing squabbles in the Glee Club? The day he dared to wear a toupee? There had to be some anecdote he could share to lighten the waiting.
“Er, gum?” he said, holding out the open pack.
“No thanks.” Her glance slid back to the screen.
Dwight got the message. He was not one of those self-absorbed gasbags who liked to “hold forth.” Nor was he a conversational desperado, who would resort to interrogating the other person just to fill the vacuum.
The green doors burst open, a second young doctor galloped in and announced a name Dwight didn’t catch. The woman stood up, gathering her coat about her, regally positioning her purse-strap over her arm. “It’s been pleasant speaking with you, Mr. Ruch,” she said. “Your father is exceptionally lucky to have you helping him.” She glanced at the glass door to the outside, where the sky was beginning to lighten. “You help others in ways you don’t even know.”
He was stunned into silence. The woman went through the green doors and he spent the next moment in a cauldron of recriminations. Why had he just stared at her? Big gaping mouth, d’you think she wanted to see your dental work? Why hadn’t he caught her name? Bugger your ears, they can’t tell “Jane” from “Harriet.” Why hadn’t he reciprocated her genuine wish for a good outcome? Dwight clenched his fists until the fingernails dug into fleshy palms.
That’s when he noticed the peach scarf under the chair where she had been sitting. He picked it up and glanced at Reception. The square-jawed clerk was on the phone, her round spectacles catching glints of light. Dwight pushed the silky scarf into his pocket.
He felt annoyed with himself, for allowing curiosity about the woman to take over the necessary hard work of deciding what to do about Father. The old man insisted on getting about without a cane or walker to steady himself. The falls would become worse. Staircases, street curbs, streetcars: all hazards. Father relied on his children to do the lion’s share of his laundry and shopping. He was a dreadful cook and, worse, was apt to forget to turn off the stove.
Dwight pinched his brow; a headache was coming on. Resentment toward Nancy swelled: she was sleeping soundly. In blessed oblivion. No, that’s not fair. Nancy had been there for Mother, right to the bitter end, when the side effects of chemo had turned Dwight’s stomach. And Father’s. Nancy had been the tough one then.
The green doors burst open, and Dwight was summoned by a doctor who looked like a brother to the first one (minus the ponytail). In the cramped examination room, Dwight’s eyes fastened immediately on Father: trembling, abashed, with red-rimmed eyes. The moment the old man saw Dwight, a grudging smile filled the wizened face. “My boy.”
This was Dwight’s second surprise of the night, and it too, stunned him into silence. Gratitude—especially toward his son—was simply not in Father’s lexicon. Or so Dwight had thought. But right now, the old man looked rescued. And thankful. And maybe even a little proud.
The doctor rattled through the diagnosis and shoved a scrip into Dwight’s hand.
“Do I get to take him home now?” Dwight said. Father did not react well to overnight stays at the hospital, even if only for observation. Apparently it was a common phenomenon among old POWs.
“Oh, for sure.” The doctor grinned and then it was rush-rush, time to get Father fully dressed and out of the examination room so the next ailing body could enter. Father’s untrimmed toenails kept snagging on his socks. Dwight made a mental note to get clippers.
On their way out, Dwight remembered the scarf. He stopped at Reception. The square-jawed clerk was not on the phone and looked friendlier than her nighttime self.
“The woman who was sitting here earlier,” he began, “in that chair there—she dropped this.” He pulled the peach scarf from his pocket, feeling like a third-rate magician.
The clerk inclined her head, “What woman?”
“She was sitting right there,” he said, motioning again. “Light brown coat, great big handbag on her lap. A hat—small green one—pinned to one side?” He gestured helplessly and the puzzled clerk frowned slightly.
“No sir—there’s been no such woman here.”
“Are you sure?” Even as he said it, he could understand the clerk’s reaction. What kind of nut was he, fabricating lies about women in waiting rooms? He saw a clock and remembered he still had to call Nancy.
“I would have noticed. I keep track of the waiting room.” The clerk pulled out a map of the waiting room. “New regulation.” She showed how it was marked with X’s and times, including his spot, which had “2:15 AM” and a checkmark.
She looked at the scarf. “I can only think…”
“Yes?” Dwight leaned in. Father rustled at his elbow, impatient to get going.
She took the scarf, examining it more closely. The fine Shantung silk scarf with a hand-rolled hem was faintly reflected in the clerk’s round lenses. “It reminds me of a woman we had here about a month ago. She waited all night and into the next day. I told her to go home; I said we would call her with any news. But she wouldn’t budge.”
“Was it a motorcycle accident?” Dwight shivered as he put his guess into words.
“Sorry, I’m not at liberty to speak about the patient we admitted.”
“Oh. Right,” Dwight said. He didn’t move; he just let the silence grow. It was his classic teacherly ploy when he sensed there was more to a story.
In a low voice, the clerk said, “She was the patient’s mother.” She paused. “She was never admitted so I guess I can tell you this.” She drew closer and her voice dropped lower. “Well, let’s just say the wait was hard on her. She died of cardiac arrest.”
The clerk carefully wound the scarf in a soft silken ball and gave it to him. “Here. This is yours now.”
V.J. Hamilton has written many stories about human trajectories that sometimes connect but more often don’t. Her fiction has been published in The MacGuffin, Prairie Journal, and Penmen Review, among others. After sojourns in western Canada, Germany, Japan, and New Zealand, she calls Toronto home. Most recently, her fiction appears in Entropy magazine.
* Details of previous publications & links
Entropy magazine – https://entropymag.org/the-birds-of-fish-and-fowl/
Penmen Review – https://penmenreview.com/?s=v.j.+hamilton
Prairie Journal – http://www.prairiejournal.org/stories.html
Picture by Paul Brennan from Pixabay
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